Ajax and the common man

One of the hot new(ish) things in web design is Ajax – standing for Asynchronous Javascript And Xml. To quote Wikipedia, “The intent is to make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change.” You’ll have seen the results on websites like Flickr, where you can edit the descriptions on your photos without having to load a new page. An impressive example of an Ajax-rich WordPress theme can be seen here; click on the buttons at the top to get the full effect.

Which is great, of course. Except that one of the joys of the internet is its accessibility for the casual user who wants to make a webpage. HTML is, really, an extremely simple system to use. CSS means a bit more to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it actually makes your life easier. And that’s all you need to arrange content on a page. If you just want to create a static webpage, you can do it entirely from scratch just with HTML and CSS, and how good the content is and how good it looks are entirely up to you.

Even using software like WordPress, it’s easy enough to just use some knowledge of HTML and CSS to restyle the output. The software is built in PHP, and you just have to work around the PHP tags, moving them around as necessary; it’s usually obvious from context what they do. So you can completely change the look of a site without doing any of what I’d call real coding. The various changes to the appearance of this site and its predecessors have all been done without me knowing any PHP. Ajax kills that, as far as I can tell; hacking around a theme to change the styling becomes a suddenly much more technical exercise.

I completely see the point of Ajax – when it’s used well, it transforms the user experience. And I’m not suggesting that anyone stop using it just for my sake. New software makes it easier and easier for people who know little about computers to share their thoughts and pictures on net; it’s just an unfortunate side-effect that as the software gets more sophisticated, it gets harder for a dabbler like me to get my hands dirty and tinker with the machinery.

I guess it’s a natural progression with all technologies. In the early days of motoring, you *had* to know how to do basic repairs to your car by the side of the road, and the engine was simple enough that you could probably do it with a couple of spanners and a can of oil. The fact that cars are now so reliable that you barely need to know how to check your oil and tyre pressure is a Good Thing, of course. But it still seems a pity when things get professionalised out of people’s hands to the point where they never get to do things themselves from scratch, whether it’s baking bread or creating a webpage.

2 Comments

  1. 5 March 2006 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m very much part of the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) school of thought. Pretty is as pretty does, but as soon as you let design become more important than content you’ve lost the battle.

  2. Harry
    5 March 2006 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree, but I can see that well-implemented Ajax is a way of keeping it simple for the user; you can enable them to do things quicker and without the distraction of the page reloading. Which doesn’t alter the fact that Ajax is sometimes used unnecessarily and stupidly. But as long as it’s used to improve people’s experience, rather than to make the designer feel pleased with him/herself, I think it’s a good thing. It just tends to marginalise the amateur.

    Whether any amount of ingenuity is enough to justify an Ajax-heavy WordPress theme, given that blogs work perfectly well without, is another matter.

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